As Border Crackdown Intensifies, A Tribe Is Caught in the Crossfire

Ofelia Rivas, a Tohono O'odham activist, is tracked by the Border Patrol whenever she visits Alir Jegk, near the border. The tribe is closing the border crossing behind her, one of its traditional paths to Mexico, at agents' request.
Ofelia Rivas, a Tohono O'odham activist, is tracked by the Border Patrol whenever she visits Alir Jegk, near the border. The tribe is closing the border crossing behind her, one of its traditional paths to Mexico, at agents' request. (John Pomfret -- The Washington Post)
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006

ALIR JEGK, Ariz. -- Elsie Salsido was breast-feeding her baby when Border Patrol agents walked into her house unannounced this summer. "Are you Mexicans?" they demanded.

Salsido's four other children cowered on the bed of her eldest, a girl in second grade. Night had fallen on this village on Arizona's border with Mexico, nestled in a scrubland valley of stickman cactuses hemmed in by mountains that look like busted teeth. The agents explained their warrantless entry into Salsido's house as "hot pursuit." They said they were chasing footprints, she recalled, of illegal immigrants sneaking in from Mexico, just 1,000 feet away. But the footprints belonged to Salsido's children -- all Americans.

As the United States ramps up its law enforcement presence on the border with Mexico, places like Alir Jegk, a village of 50 families in south-central Arizona, are enduring heightened danger, as they are squeezed between increasingly aggressive bands of immigrant and drug smugglers and increasingly numerous federal agents who, critics say, often ignore regulations as they seek to enforce the law.

Alir Jegk's experience is complicated by the fact that it is on the second-biggest Indian reservation in the United States, belonging to the Tohono O'odham, or Desert People, who hunted deer and boar and harvested wild spinach and prickly pear in this region before an international border was etched through their land in 1853. Now, the Tohono O'odham Nation occupies the front line of the fight against drug and immigrant smuggling -- costing the poverty-stricken tribe millions of dollars a year and threatening what remains of its traditions.

"We have the undocumented and drug smugglers heading north and law enforcement heading south. We're smack in the middle," Vivian Juan-Saunders, chairwoman of the tribe, said in an interview at the tribal headquarters in Sells, Ariz. "We are being squeezed."

In testimony to the U.S. Senate, the tribe's vice chairman, Ned Norris Jr., described a "border security crisis that has caused shocking devastation of our land and resources."

About 11,000 Tohono O'odham live on a 2.8 million-acre reservation, the size of Connecticut, with a 75-mile-long border with Mexico. A rickety four-foot-tall, three-strand barbed-wire fence delineates the border, which is punctuated by 160 trails and four cattle crossings. For decades the nation saw little or no illegal traffic from Mexico. The main movement was members of the Tohono O'odham who live in the Mexican part of the reservation trickling into the United States for health services in Sells.

In the mid-1990s, however, the Clinton administration cracked down on illegal crossings in San Diego and El Paso. Instead of stopping illegal immigration and drug running, however, the operations simply rerouted traffic through the deserts of the Southwest. And in Arizona, Tohono O'odham land, bisected by State Highway 86 -- an easy link to Phoenix to the north and California to the west -- became ground zero.

The flow of drugs and undocumented immigrants through the reservation has caused a host of problems. Juan-Saunders estimated that about 1,500 illegal immigrants cross reservation land each day, depositing on average six tons of trash. Some well-traveled knolls have been renamed "Million Backpack Hill" because of the refuse.

The tribe routinely devotes more than 10 percent of its budget to coping with the crisis. Annually, Juan-Saunders said, the 71-member Tohono O'odham Police Department spends $3 million on problems related to illegal immigrants and drug traffickers. The reservation pays an additional $2 million each year to provide emergency health services for undocumented travelers. Since 2002, 315 crossers have died on the reservation's land, including, this year, a 3-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl.

The Tohono O'odham are a poor nation, with an average per capita income of $8,000 a year, well below the U.S. average of $23,000 and the Indian average of $13,000. Forty percent of the families on the reservation live below the federal poverty line, and unemployment is at 42 percent. Juan-Saunders said an increasing number of nation members are sucked into the drug- and immigrant-smuggling business.

Two of Juan-Saunders's relatives have been arrested on drug-related charges, tribal officials said. And in Alir Jegk, drug smugglers have plied Elsie Salsido's sister with so many narcotics over the years in their attempts to turn her into a mule that the woman has never been the same, residents say.

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